Saffron: Nutrition, Benefits, and Uses
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices on the planet. A pound of this dark orange-colored spice can cost you as much as $5,000. This is not surprising, given the labor-intensive activities involved in the harvesting and processing of this spice. It would not surprise you either why chefs only use a small amount of saffron in their recipes because of its intense flavor. What may surprise you is that this spice is also packed with nutrients, providing many health benefits.
Nutrition Profile of Saffron
A single strand of saffron contains at least 150 different aroma-yielding and volatile compounds. This is what gives the spice its amazing culinary powers. There are also nonvolatile active compounds that have antioxidant properties. A tablespoon of this spice can provide modest amounts of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. It also contains minerals and vitamins, as well as a good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
A tablespoon of saffron contains 6.2 calories, 1.3 grams of carbohydrates, 0.2 grams of protein, and 0.1 grams of fat. It also contains 0.2 grams of moisture. While it has a greater proportion of carbohydrates, one should not be worried because there are no sugars or starches.
This spice contains a good amount of Vitamin A, folate, and Vitamin C. These can aid the body in many of its metabolic processes. Saffron also contains modest amounts of thiamine, Vitamin B12, riboflavin, Vitamin B6, and niacin.
What surprises many people is that saffron also contains different minerals. It is a good source of potassium, iron, manganese, and magnesium. Saffron also contains calcium, sodium, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, and copper.
- Essential fatty acids
This is one of the biggest surprises about saffron. A tablespoon of this bright, yellow-orange spice can provide 25 milligrams of omega-3 essential fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid. This is a polyunsaturated fatty acid that is popular in the treatment and prevention of different diseases. Saffron also contains omega-6 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat that possesses anti-inflammatory properties.
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Benefits of Saffron
The nutrition profile of saffron can already give you an idea of the many benefits that this spice can provide. Let us look at these benefits one by one.
- Neutralizes the effects of oxidative stress on the body
The different compounds present in saffron have very potent antioxidant properties. These include alpha-crocin, kaempferol, safranal, and crocetin. It also includes other antioxidant carotenoids like zeaxanthin and alpha- and beta-carotene. Lycopene is also an antioxidant found in saffron.
These compounds can help neutralize the many harmful effects of oxidative stress. This results in healthier cells and tissues. Both crocetin and alpha-crocin can help protect the cells of the brain against damage. They can also improve the ability of the body to address inflammation.
On the other hand, safranal can improve the overall function of the brain cells. This translates to better learning and improved memory recall. Kaempferol possesses antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties.
Lycopene, for its part, can help improve the overall health of the human heart. It can also reduce a person’s risk of developing certain types of cancer. Zeaxanthin is almost similar to alpha- and beta- carotene since it is also a carotenoid. What this antioxidant is most famous for is its ability to prevent cataracts and macular degeneration.
- Protection against certain types of cancer
Cancer starts with a change in the genetic material of a single cell. This change in the DNA of a cell produces defective daughter cells. Because cells keep on dividing to produce two daughter cells, the defective gene gets passed down to each of these daughter cells. Over time, the original cell undergoes genetic mutation.
One of the potential causes of this change in a cell’s genetic makeup is oxidative stress. In oxidative stress, there is an overproduction of free radicals. These can interact with the different cells of the body. In some of these free radical-cell interactions, the genetic material of the cell gets altered. This initiates the cascade effect of producing defective cells.
Since saffron contains powerful antioxidants, they can neutralize these free radicals before they can alter the genetic material of the cell. This can help protect the person from certain types of cancer. It is important to realize that there are many ways in which the genetic makeup of a cell can get altered. Oxidative stress is only one of them.
There are interesting studies that underscore alpha-crocin’s innate ability in fighting certain types of cancer. This antioxidant can trigger programmed cell death in certain types of cancers. These include cells from cancers of the soft tissues, the colon, the ovaries, and the white blood cells.
What is more surprising is that alpha-crocin and the other antioxidants show preference for cancer cells. They do not have any effect on normal, healthy cells. In addition to this, alpha-crocin has also been shown to stimulate the production of cancer-fighting white blood cells.
- Promotes better memory and learning
This is also related to the antioxidant properties of saffron. Since alpha-crocin and the other polyphenols can help neutralize free radicals, they promote a more normal functioning of the brain cells. In many cases, they can also help improve the overall cognitive function.
There are studies that show alpha-crocin can help improve the symptoms of cognitive impairment among elderly people. In Japan, they use the spice in the treatment of brain inflammation, memory loss, and Parkinson’s disease. If the spice can provide benefits to the aging population, then it should also work wonders for younger people.
- Improves mood
In addition to an improvement in cognitive function, saffron can also help improve overall mood. At the same time, the spice can improve the symptoms associated with mild to moderate cases of depression.
There is evidence that underscores saffron’s ability to lessen depressive symptoms. In these studies, saffron may have almost the same antidepressant effects of conventional antidepressant medications. These can include imipramine, fluoxetine, and citalopram. These provide promise to millions of people suffering from depression.
- Increases vitality
There is reason to believe that saffron can serve as an aphrodisiac. This spice can “spice” up one’s sex life by improving libido and addressing erectile dysfunction. It can also improve one’s overall satisfaction with sex. However, the spice does not have any effect on the characteristics of semen. While it can improve one’s sexual vigor, saffron cannot improve one’s ability to father a child.
The same is true in women. Saffron can help reduce the sensation of pain during intercourse. It can also intensify sexual feelings and desire. This can help improve the amount of lubrication in the vaginal canal, allowing for less painful penetration.
- Aids in weight loss by reducing appetite
Most people will not believe that saffron has the ability to curb one’s appetite. While no one in the scientific community can explain its appetite-suppressant effect, there is reason to believe that it is related to saffron’s antidepressant effects. Improving your mood can help you take better control of your appetite.
Women who are taking saffron supplements feel fuller than those who do not take such supplements. As such, they do not have snacks as often as others. This leads to an improvement in their body weight, body mass index, total fat mass, and waist circumference.
Uses of Saffron
Saffron is an amazing spice that can provide a host of benefits. It is also a very versatile spice that people can use in many different ways.
- Culinary ingredient
For many people, this is the main use of saffron. From risottos to arancinis and chicken tagines, saffron can impart a very distinct sweet and savory flavor to any dish. A pinch of this spice is enough to transform your dish into an outstanding recipe.
- Management of depression
As already mentioned, saffron can improve the symptoms of depression. Taking saffron supplements for 6 to 12 weeks can help improve major depressive symptoms. There are also studies that recommend augmenting existing antidepressant treatments with saffron. This can help potentiate the effects of the antidepressant medication. It can bring faster relief from the symptoms of depression.
- An Adjunct in the treatment of alzheimer’s disease
Saffron extracts can serve as an adjunct treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease. For this to work, one has to take saffron extracts for about 22 weeks to gain noticeable improvements. This spice is almost as effective as donepezil in the management of Alzheimer symptoms.
- Management of dysmenorrhea or painful menstruation
Women who are suffering from painful menstruation can also use saffron. This can help reduce the intensity of the pain that women experience during menstruation. Saffron can help eliminate the need for commercially available painkillers that can have side effects.
- Symptomatic management of premenstrual syndrome
In addition to reducing pain during menstruation, saffron can also help reduce the symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome. This is a cluster of manifestations that often precede the actual menstruation. Taking saffron extracts can help improve PMS symptoms in as short as two menstrual cycles.
Other Potential Uses
There are other uses of saffron. However, many of these do not have sufficient evidence to support their use. Examples of these include age-related macular degeneration, anxiety, glaucoma, asthma, baldness, cough, insomnia, and vomiting, among others.
Saffron is not only a culinary miracle spice; it is also an ingredient with very potent antioxidant abilities. It is this nature of saffron that gives it many benefits and uses.